Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann

Article/book #: 4794
Title: Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann
By: Chaim Weizmann  
Date of issue: 1921, reprinted 1949 and 1972
ISBN: 0837161665

People/entities mentioned in this item: Timeline event(s) mentioned in this item:
   03 Dec 1914:Weizmann, CP Scott, Lloyd George, Herbert Samuel and Josiah Wedgwood meet for breakfast
   10 Dec 1914:Chaim Weizmann and Herbert Samuel meet in Samuel's office
   15 Dec 1914:Lloyd George asks Chaim Weizmann about the relative proportions of Jews and Arabs in Palestine
   16 Apr 1917:Weizmann learns of the Sykes-Picot agreement
        (For notes, see here )
   04 Jul 1917:Talks during which Chaim Weizmann convinces Henry Morgenthau to abort US mission seeking Ottoman withdrawal from World War I
   24 May 1948:Jan Smuts gives de facto recognition to Israel
        (For notes, see here )


Those wealthy Jews who could not wholly divorce themselves from a feeling of responsibility toward their people, but at the same time could not identify themselves with the hopes of the masses, were prepared with a sort of left-handed generosity on condition that their right hand did not know what their left hand was doing. To them the university�to be in Jerusalem�was philanthropy which did not compromise them; to us it was the National Renaissance. They would give�with disclaimers�we would accept�with reservations.


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which I had left behind me. Switzerland - and this meant chiefly Berne and Geneva - was, at the turn of the century, the crossroads of Europe's revolutionary forces. Lenin and Plekhanov made it their center. Trotzky, who was some years younger than I, was often there. The Jewish students were swayed � it might be better to say overawed � by the intellectual and moral authority of the older revolutionaries, with whose names was already associated the glamor of Siberian records. Against them the tiny handful of Zionist students could make no headway, having no authority of comparable standing to oppose them.

Actually the fight was not of our choosing; it was thrust upon us. Our sympathies were with the revolutionaries; they, however, would not tolerate in the Jewish youth any expression of separate attachment to the Jewish people, or even special awareness of the Jewish problem. Yet the Jewish youth was not essentially assimiliationist; its bonds with its people were genuine and strong; it was only by doing violence to their inclinations and upbringing that these young men and women had turned their backs, at the bidding of the revolutionary leaders, on the peculiar bitterness of the Jewish lot. My resentment of Lenin and Plekhanov and the arrogant Trotsky was provoked by the contempt with which they treated any Jew who was moved by the fate of his people and animated by a love of its history and its tradition. They could not understand why a Russian Jew should want to be anything but a Russian. They stamped as unworthy, as intellectually backward, as chauvinist and unmoral, the desire of any Jew to occupy himself with the sufferings and destiny of Jewry. A man like Chaim Zhitlovsky, who was both a revolutionary and a Jewish nationalist, was looked upon with extreme suspicion. And when the Bund was created � the Jewish branch of the revolutionary movement, national as well as revolutionary in character - Plekhanov sneered that a Bundist was a Zionist who was afraid of seasickness. Thus the mass of Russian-Jewish students in Switzerland had been bullied into an artificial denial of their own personality; and they did not recover a sense of balance until the authority of the �old men� was boldly challenged and in part overthrown by the dissidents � that is, by us.

There were seven of us at first, including myself. Of the others I remember Chaim Chisin, S. Rappaport. Abram Lichtenstein, Nachman Syrkin and Zvi Aberson. Chisin and Rappaport were older men. The first had already lived in Palestine, and had come to Switzerland to learn medicine and return to Palestine. Rappaport, famous under the name of Ansky as the author of The Dybbuk, was not a Zionist, but he rather resented the overbearing attitude of the �master people,� the Russians, toward Jewish nationalism. Lichtenstein, who later married my sister, and went with her to Palestine, was of my age. Of Nachman Syrkin I have already told something: he came to us from the Berlin group; and of Aberson I shall speak further on.

Page 139 onward:

Ehrlich was then at the very height of his phenomenal career, and utterly unapproachable by ordinary mortals. I had heard this, moreover, that he took little interest in Jewish matters, and indeed in any matters outside the scope of his medical research. I was at a loss for a means of contact, until I bethought myself of an old friend in Berlin, Professor Landau, who was related to Ehrlich by marriage. In March of 1914 I made a special journey to Berlin, sought out Landau and said, in effect, that I would be grateful to him for the rest of my life if he would telephone his illustrious relative in Frankfort and arrange an interview for me.

Professor Landau acceded to the request, very doubtful though he was of the feasibility of my plans. I would be lucky, he said, if Ehrlich gave me five minutes of his time; and luckier still if I could persuade him to detach his thoughts from his scientific affairs long enough to get him to understand what I was talking about; for Ehrlich was utterly impervious to outside influences, especially in his laboratory, where I proposed to visit him.

I was not in a very sanguine state of mind when I mounted the steps of the Speyer Institute, in Frankfurt. In spite of my public activities, I was by nature shy, and hanging about in the antechambers of the great was not in my line. Not that on this occasion I had much hanging about to do. The difficulty turned out to be of another character, for the rather extraordinary interview which Ehrlich granted me quite promptly nearly turned out to be a piece of propaganda for Ehrlich's scientific theories rather than for the Hebrew University.

I have retained an ineradicable impression of Ehrlich. His figure was small and stocky, but he had a head of great beauty, delicately chiseled; and out of his face looked a pair of eyes which were the most penetrating that I have ever seen-but they were eyes filled with human kindness. therefore plunged at once into the subject of his researches. He introduced me to some of his assistants (since become famous) and especially to his rabbits and guinea pigs. Then he took me on a fairly comprehensive, if rapid, tour of his laboratory, talking all the time and performing test-tube experiments as we went along.

It was fascinating; but it would have been more so if I had not been wondering how I could switch the conversation to the purpose of my visit. I listened respectfully while he unfolded part of his theory of chemistry-for he was a great chemist as well as a great medical man. He spoke of chemistry as of a weapon with which one could shoot at diseases. He put it this way: if you have your chemistry properly applied, you can aim straight at the cause of a sickness. By 'properly applied' he meant the creation of a certain group in a compound with a specific affinity for certain tissues in the human body. Such a compound, injected into the body, unites with those tissues only. He gave me an instance: if one injected a certain dyestuff called methylene blue in an animal-say a mouse-and afterwards cut open the body, one would find that the whole body had remained unaffected. In methylene blue the grouping of the atoms makes it a specific for the nervous tissues. But suppose methylene blue had a curative value for certain nervous diseases; you could then, as it were, aim for the nerves without affecting the rest of the body. He developed this theory to me-it is obsolete now, but was new then-with great eloquence and excitement as I followed him about the laboratory.

At last I took my courage in my hands, and steered the conversation cautiously in my direction: I mentioned that I had come to see him, at the suggestion of Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris, on the subject of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He listened for a few moments, and then exclaimed: 'But why Jerusalem?' I was off at last! I set out with considerable energy to explain why Jerusalem was the one place in all the world where a Hebrew University could and ought to be established. Somehow I caught his interest, and my excitement rose as I saw that he was following my argument with increasing attention. It was perhaps twenty minutes before he interrupted me, saying: "I am sorry, we must stop now. After I have seen my patients, we shall go home and continue".

Then, excitedly, he pulled out his watch and exclaimed: "You have kept me nearly an hour. Do you know that out there, in the corridor, there are counts, princes and ministers who are waiting to see me, and who will be happy if I give them ten minutes of my time?"

He said it good-naturedly, and I replied: "Yes, Professor Ehrlich, but the difference between me and your other visitors is that they come to receive an injection from you, and I came to give you one".

We continued our conversation later that evening at his house, where I met Mrs. Ehrlich, a typical sweet German Hausfrau, who was always scolding her husband for his untidiness, and for his ceaseless smoking. [Hedwig Ehrlich managed to flee Nazi Germany by way of Switzerland for the United States, where she died in 1948.] Ehrlich was literally never without a cigar in his mouth, and I think it was this habit that killed him. By the time I left him he promised to see Baron Edmond on his next visit to Paris, which was to take place in a few days, and to give him his answer.

I stayed on for a little while in Germany, and got back to Manchester for the first day of Passover. I found waiting for me an enthusiastic telegram from Ehrlich. He was in Paris; he had talked to the Baron; and he had consented to serve on the University Committee. It was a tremendous scoop for me.

Page 150

. . .

I almost wish it had been as simple as that, and that I had never known the heartbreaks, the drudgery and the uncertainties which preceded the Declaration. But history does not deal in Aladdin's lamps. Actually, Mr. Lloyd George's advocacy of the Jewish homeland long predated his accession to the Premiership, and we had several meetings in the intervening years, as will be seen below.

It became a practice with me, whenever I happened to be in London, and Mr. Scott came up on the night train, to meet him at Euston Station for breakfast. His usual greeting to me was : "Now, Dr. Weizmann, tell me what you want me to do for you," and breakfast would pass in conversation on Zionist affairs. On this morning of December 3, however, his greeting was : "We're going to have breakfast at nine o'clock with Mr. Lloyd George."

There were present at this meeting, besides Lloyd George, Mr. Scott and myself, Herbert Samuel, then President of the Local Government Board under Asquith, and Josiah Wedgwood, then to me an unknown figure. I was terribly shy and suffered from suppressed excitement, knowing how much depended on this meeting. At first I remained a passive listener. They talked about the war in a way that seemed to me extraordinarily flippant.


Page 152


I made no attempt to conceal from Lloyd George or the others the fact that the rich and powerful Jews were for the most part ...


I followed up at once Lloyd George's suggestion about seeing Balfour. Professor Alexander, with whom Balfour was acquainted as a brother philosopher, sent him a note reintroducing me and received in reply a postcard on which Balfour had scribbled: "Dear Sam: Weizmann needs no introduction. I still remember our conversation in 1906." When I walked into Balfour's office in London - ” he was then First Lord of the Admiralty - ” he hailed me with : "Well, you haven't changed much since we met." And almost without pause, "You know, I was thinking of that conversation of ours, and I believe that after the guns stop firing you may get your Jerusalem."


Page 370

... The Germans, as always, were particularly active in Italy. It was not that they considered Italy a particularly valuable ally; they were more concerned with a springboard for action in the Mediterranean, directed against Britain.

We were an insignificant factor in this struggle of the Great Powers ; still, there we were, growing, pushing our roots into an important part of the Mediterranean shore, and the Italians did not like it. Their attitude found more than journalistic expression in the Permanent Mandates Commission, where the Italian representative, Count Theodoli,

Page 371

could always be relied on to veto any constructive suggestion in our behalf.

What Count Theodoli's personal convictions on the subject of Zionism were, I do not know; but he did have a personal relation to it. He was connected with a great Arab family in Beyrough, the Sursuks, who were the absentee landlords from whom we had bought large stretches of land in the Valley of Jezreel. Neither Theodoli nor his relatives the Sursuks could get over the fact that they had sold the land so cheaply � actually they got a very high price for areas which our work made valuable later � and they always threw the blame on Victor Sursuk, a member of the family who kept a great establishment in Alexandria, and whom they accused of Zionist leanings. They should have held on to the land, and they would have got for it five times as much as they did. In vain did I explain to Theodoli and his Arab relatives that what they had sold us was a deadly marsh, and they better than anyone else should have known how the Arab villages in that district had disappeared, and how we had had to sink hundreds of thousands of pounds into drainage and improvement and roads. If the land was so valuable now, it had become so through our work and effort, our sacrifices in blood and money. This, incidentally, is a phenomenon we are constantly running up against in Palestine. Visitors who know nothing about the country and its history are always making the unfounded charge that the Jews have taken the best land. ... and made it the best by our efforts. It seems as if God has covered the soil of Palestine with rocks and marshes and sand, so that its beauty can only be brought out by those who love it and will devote their lives to healing its wounds.

On the Permanent Mandates Commission Count Theodoli, following instructions, posed as the great defender of Arab rights and of the Catholic Church against the imaginary encroachments of the Jews. The Italians were worried by the excessive liberalism of the new Jewish institutions, and helped spread the legend of the flagrant atheism of the Jewish settlements in the Holy Land. This was a time when the Fascists were entering into close relations with the Vatican, and making what political capital they could of the combination.

I paid a second visit to Italy to see Mussolini and to tour the Italian- Jewish communities. The Rome-Berlin Axis had not yet been forged, the issue of Italy's alliance was still in doubt, and I hoped to make some improvement in our ...

Page 385

. . . I put it to them thus: "I know that God promised Palestine to the children of Israel, but I do not know what boundaries He set. I believe that they were wider than the ones now proposed, and may have included TransJordan. Still, we have foregone the eastern part and are now asked to forego some of the western part. If God will keep His promise to His people in His own time, our business as poor humans, who live in a difficult age, is to save as much as we can

Page 386

of the remnants of Israel. By adopting this project we can save more of them than by continuing the Mandatory policy." It was my own deep conviction that God had always chosen small countries through which to convey His messages to ...

Quotations from this item:
Arthur James Balfour (1915):  "Well, you haven't changed much since we met. You know, I was thinking of that co... "
Chaim Weizmann:  "Palestine will be as Jewish as England is English.... "
Chaim Weizmann (1936):  "I know that God promised Palestine to the children of Israel, but I do not know ... "
Chaim Weizmann (1949):  "It seems as if God has covered the soil of Palestine with rocks and marshes and ... "
Quotations attributed to this item:
Chaim Weizmann (1949):  "In all these actions we were placed in the curious position of seeming to oppose... "

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